November 20, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Veterans heal themselves by helping others

Adam Szafran knows disaster.

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Philippine military personnel carry a man to board an evacuation flight at the airport in Tacloban, Philippineson Tuesday. More on Nemitz 2 3gggg.

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Children play on the playground of the typhoon damaged Pawing Elementary School in Palo town, Leyte province, central Philippines Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by Typhoon Haiyan, which tore across several islands in the eastern Philippines on Nov. 8.

AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Nine years ago next month, while serving in Iraq with the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, he was in the Tactical Operations Center at Forward Operating Base Marez in Mosul when a suicide bomber self-detonated in the base’s nearby chow hall.

The blast killed 22 people, including two Mainers, and wounded 80 others, including two dozen Mainers. Szafran’s job that day: help coordinate the emergency response to what at the time was the worst single attack on U.S. forces in the Iraq War.

Fast forward to last weekend, when Szafran boarded a flight for Los Angeles to help coordinate the emergency response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines – not as a soldier this time, but as a civilian well versed in getting help where it’s most needed, and fast.

“It’s very therapeutic,” said Szafran, 32, over his cellphone Monday. “That’s one of the goals of this organization.”

He’s talking about Team Rubicon, a veterans organization tailor-made for the legions of young Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade-plus and now find themselves itching to do something meaningful here with the skills they developed over there.

Founded by retired Marines Jacob Wood and Will McNulty after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, Team Rubicon draws its name from the river in northeastern Italy that Julius Caesar and his army crossed on their way to Rome in 49 B.C. From that legendary march comes the oft-used phrase “crossing the Rubicon,” which in modern times means committing to a risky course of action beyond the point of no return.

“It’s very much a cathartic experience, to go out into these disaster zones that are eerily similar to combat zones,” said McNulty in a separate interview Tuesday. Only now, he said, “you’re just going there with goodwill.”

Since it first descended on Haiti almost four years ago, Team Rubicon has ballooned to 12,000 members nationwide. They’ve responded to disasters and provided other humanitarian relief in eight locations around the world (including Japan after the tsunami in 2011) and 21 communities throughout the United States (including those hit by Hurricane Sandy and the seemingly endless parade of tornadoes that has raked the Midwest in the past few years).

Szafran, who left the military in 2008 and now works as an Internet technology engineer for Martin’s Point Health Care in Portland, spent several years casting about for a service-oriented organization when he came across Team Rubicon last year via a speech by co-founder Wood. He was particularly impressed with the group’s motto: Bridging the Gap.

For Team Rubicon, the slogan centers on the time that inevitably ticks away between a disastrous event – say, this month’s catastrophic typhoon in the Philippines – and the deployment of coordinated help from various global relief organizations. Team Rubicon’s rapid-response “strike teams,” patterned after military operations, strive to “bridge the gap” and save as many lives as possible in the critical hours and days before other help arrives.

For Szafran, now the state coordinator for Maine, Team Rubicon bridges an equally important divide, between his eight years in the military and his current life as a civilian. He calls his newfound calling “the modern-day VFW.”

He’s quick to point out that groups like Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion “have their mission and do serve a purpose.” Still, Szafran said, many younger veterans who did one or more tours in Iraq or Afghanistan need much more than what those traditional organizations have to offer.

He should know.

“I think I struggled in my own way, as everybody does,” Szafran said, looking back on the aftermath of his year in Iraq. “I didn’t have a whole lot of what I call major issues.”

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